How We Got Here

What the Dinosaurs Saw: Life on Earth Before Humans – written and illustrated by Fatti Burke
Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2022

The great children’s author and illustrator, Virginia Lee Burton, wrote a range of books besides Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shove. One, originally published in 1962, is Life Story, an account of the universe’s origins.  Fatti Burke’s What the Dinosaurs Saw is not indebted artistically to Burton’s book, but it reminds me of it in the best possible way.  This new account of evolution is incredibly comprehensive, clearly written, and artistically distinguished. Since we now read daily about school censorship battles which echo the Scopes Trial, it is more relevant than ever. 

Beginning with the Big Bang and tracing the earliest life forms, dinosaurs, mammals, continental drift, and human evolution, the book presents a clear vision of how each young reader came to inherit her life on earth.

One of the most impressive aspects of this guide is how the author and illustrator presents and develops an overarching and consistent theme, without either intimidating or patronizing children. Beginning with a brief introduction and a friendly invitation to learn more, she starts with empty space and then depicts the Big Bang as a colorful exploding ball. The bottom of every page provides a continual timeline, automatically placing each stage and episode in context.  There is plenty of attention given to everyone’s favorite dinosaurs, with detailed descriptions of each age and species, but also a family tree carefully linking each species, genus, and clade (a species plus its descendants).  You may have read other dinosaur books with your children and students, but this one fills in many gaps. 

But Burke does not skip from the Big Bang to Tyrannosaurus Rex.  Where would dinosaurs be without electrons, neutrons, and protons, or the varied invertebrates of the Cambrian Explosion?  Continuity and change are not abstract concepts in Burke’s tour through birds and mammals Different earth tones form the background of each page, and a limited color palette with selected use of contrast evokes traditional museum exhibits. At the same time, simple bold lines and highlighted details combine to make every component of the story memorable.  There is humor, and even a touch of anthropomorphism, without compromising scientific integrity. When the crocodile proclaims, “I’m a survivor,” he is just corroborating the lesson that, while many species suffered extinction, some adapted and survived.

Children may have a sketchy notion of why so many species disappeared, perhaps due to climate change or an asteroid hitting the earth.  Burke begins with that minimal knowledge as a starting point but, as she does throughout the book, offers more facts and metaphors to make it concrete.  An asteroid that is “bigger than 100 football fields” is easy to visualize, and complements the straightforward statement of consequences to life on earth: “When the vegetation perished, herbivores starved to death, and this meant that carnivores had nothing to eat, either, just like what happened in the Great Dying, 186 million years before.”  Because she understands the way children conceptualize information, Burke is able to accompany them through every step of their journey.

Virginia Lee Burton’s Life Story uses the framework of a theatrical production with several acts to tell earth’s story.  What the Dinosaurs Saw is as sophisticated artistically in following evolution, combining scientific accuracy with abundant imagination. After all, those two approaches are necessary for children, and adults, seeking to grasp the incredible story of how the universe as we know it came to be.  The Scopes Trial took place in 1925, but it still requires knowledge, empathy, and also courage, to inform readers about the world.

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